Q: I have a name that tends to generate a number of nicknames. First of all, should I use my full name at work to appear more professional? Secondly, how can I politely deal with people who just decide to use a nickname without asking my preference? I want to be aware of my professional brand without inviting a headache over constantly correcting people.
A: Your parents gave you your name and I’m sure it’s a beautiful one that’s very meaningful to them and to you. Using your name to appear professional or not professional is unnecessary—any name is professional regardless of what it is. In this era of cross-cultural awareness, inclusion, and diversity, no one’s name should be treated with anything but respect. Whether it’s a situation of turning Andrew into Andy or Jillian into Jill, you get to decide how you want to be recognized and what name people use to address you.
Correcting someone who has mispronounced your name or used a non-preferred nickname is perfectly acceptable. If someone uses a nickname without asking your preference, you can easily and politely say, “Actually, I prefer to be called Alexandra rather than Alex.” You mention being concerned about your professional brand, when in fact, you can’t really have a professional brand unless you do correct people to use your name correctly and consistently. If your name is a difficult one for some people to pronounce or has a non-standard pronunciation, take the time to state your name slowly and repeat as needed. With so much of our communication being via email, you may encounter slower adoption of your preferred name, but it’s important to tell people right away, as it is a lot harder to change habits once they’ve been established. Most people want to use and pronounce names correctly, so making your preferences known is beneficial for everyone.
Part of your concern about your professional brand might be linked to a former or common nickname that’s associated with youth or a different phase of your life. Maybe you went by Timmy throughout college, but made the shift to Tim when you entered the workforce. People who knew you years ago may still know you by your college nickname, and if you don’t like that anymore, it’s your responsibility to take them aside to let them know: “I know you’ve called me Timmy forever, but in my work life, I’m recognized as Tim.” The same goes for addressing people as “Buddy,” “Champ,” or “Chief,” which would be better left in high school.
For anyone who may be unclear about a professional contact’s preferred name, pay attention to how they introduce themselves, are introduced by colleagues, or sign their emails. It’s certainly okay to ask them directly, as well: “Do you go by Alex?” People usually have good intentions when asking after a nickname—they may know someone who uses that nickname and they may be demonstrating a familiar, collegial relationship by asking. Don’t take offense and don’t feel badly stating your preference. Some people may like being asked explicitly about their name preference as it gives them the opportunity to either confirm definitively that they would like to use their full names or to indicate a nickname that suits them better.
When you think about your brand and about helping people honor your preferences, some level of consistency is key. It’s possible that you shift back and forth between your full name and a nickname, depending on the context. You might sign documents or register for events with your full name, but use a nickname in casual conversation. It’s easier for most people to stick with one name, but if you do use both, there are ways to communicate this clearly. Perhaps your full email signature says Kathleen, but your typed closing above it could say Kathy. Think about how you answer your phone or what your voicemail says. These little things will help set people up for success and keep you happy with how you are addressed.
Whatever your preferred name is—full name, nick name, middle name, whatever—it’s your choice of what to be called and people should respect that. If it’s important enough to them, anyone can learn to use and pronounce any name of someone that they communicate with regularly.